Written By Aarav Kumar (Grade 7)
Humans are not built to stay underwater for long periods of time. At most, an average person can hold their breath underwater for a minute, or even less. Now, if we add in actively swimming underwater, the time comes down to mere seconds. However, along the coast of The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, 30 meters below the surface, one can find Bajau swimmers, armed only with a speargun and a pair of goggles, hunting for food for upwards of 10 minutes. These sea-gypsies are quite possibly some of the best swimmers on the planet, and the manner in which they have preserved their art, even today, is impressive.
A common legend pertaining to the origins of the Bajau, or the Sama as they call themselves, is one of a princess, who, after being swept away or kidnapped at sea, is the target of a rescue operation launched by her father, the king. After these rescuers are unable to bring her back, they decide to adopt a seafaring way of life, in order to avoid the king’s wrath. Despite variations among the different groups comprising the Bajau, the theme remains the same. The Bajau call the shores of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia their homes, where they construct stilt houses. Today, a large number of Bajau have been relocated, often forcefully. Many have had to abandon their nomadic lifestyles, with some even resorting to diving for coins thrown overboard by ship passengers. Still, some continue to follow the practices of their ancestors. These sea gypsies travel in flotillas of houseboats, with one boat being home to one nuclear family. The Bajau are subsistence hunters, and dive to extremely deep waters in search for food. Equipped only with a speargun and handmade goggles, these divers dive hundreds of feet below sea level, and stay there for up to 13 minutes. Many young Bajau puncture their eardrums in childhood, to enable them to bear the incredible pressure at the seafloor. They also have some genetic adaptations specific to their unique way of life. Studies have found that they have evolved larger spleens, to allow them to hold their breath for longer periods of time. With these peculiarities, the Bajau are capable of freediving to great depths, and even walking on the seafloor, to hunt for prey like fish and octopus.
However impressive the Bajau lifestyle is, the reality is that this lifestyle is dying out. Some practices followed by Bajau divers are harming the marine environment. For example, Bajau divers squirt potassium cyanide onto fish to stun them for an easy catch. This has the side effect of harming the sensitive coral reefs in the region. The Bajau are often discriminated against by governments, and have also been resettled on land. The advent of industrial fishing has depleted fish stocks, forcing the Bajau to adopt alternate livelihoods.
The Bajau are truly one of the most unique and fascinating groups on the planet. Their astounding skills underwater, where they are as comfortable as we are on land, baffle average people like us. Sadly, their way of life is succumbing to modernity. This is why measures must be taken to preserve their lifestyle, and help them adapt to the modern world.
Featured Image Courtesy – National Geographic